Of Leprechauns And Religious Liberty

Church-State Conflict Looms Large On The Emerald Isle

I guess my recent trip to Ireland wasn’t very conventional. First, I didn’t hear a single rendition of “Danny Boy.” Second, although I saw two spectacular rainbows, neither appeared to be connected to a leprechaun, much less a pot of gold.  Third, I did not kiss the Blarney Stone – not for reasons of hygiene, but because my wife Joanne made it clear that although there are plenty of gifts I could use more of, “gab” is not among them.

Speaking of kissing inanimate objects, though, you can’t spend time on the “Emerald Isle” and not feel like kissing the first stone you see back in the United States in thanks for at least one thing: the religious liberty we have here.

The history of Ireland is defined by the intensity of its religious conflicts. It all began when Celtic Pagans found their traditions and spirituality trashed by sword-and-Scripture-wielding Christians. By the 1700s, as Britain ruled Ireland, Catholics were prohibited by law from holding office in the Irish Parliament, a policy that wasn’t overturned until 1829. Of course, once Catholics acquired a majority in parliament, they began routinely passing laws against divorce and birth control in an attempt to enforce church doctrine.

Then, there were “the Troubles,” violent clashes that began in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s between supporters of the mainly Protestant government and mostly Catholic civil rights activists. British troops were seen as anti-Catholic, and for decades Northern Ireland practiced religious apartheid. Violence ended only as the result of a cease fire agreement brokered throughout the mid-1990s.

 As a fellow we hired to give us a tour of Belfast put it, “The whole thing, all of it, was about religion.” Most historians wouldn’t agree that it was solely about disputes over theology, but the miles of barbed wire and the remnants of security checkpoints are stark reminders of how it all played out. 

Against this history, though, virtually every day’s newspapers carried stories of religious disputes remarkably like those in the United States. Unfortunately, Ireland’s Constitution, although proclaiming some degree of religious freedom, has not been interpreted in ways remotely similar to the way our Supreme Court has read our First Amendment.

Our visit coincided with the start of the school year. Until recently, most primary schools were run by the Catholic Church, but this term a few government-run “community schools” have opened.  Even there, however, religious instruction during school time is likely to be the standard practice.

At one, the principal asserted that religion class would stress “the commonalities shared by faith” but noted that segregation by religion would still occur to prepare Catholic students for their first communion. There is no clear way to challenge such instruction under the Irish Constitution.

The new term also brought the first Muslim student to be allowed to wear a hijab to high school. A 14-year-old girl, denied the opportunity to wear the head covering last year because of an alleged contravention of a school uniform policy, negotiated with school officials over the summer to achieve this result. Had no accommodation been reached, there would have been no readily apparent judicial remedy for the girl.

And, believe it or not, folks in Ireland are already fighting about the Christmas season. Some people really got bent out of shape when a popular Dublin department store called Brown Thomas erected a Christmas tree in September.

An English professor opined in a letter to the editor, “I suggest the Government considers a ban on Christmas decorations until the season of Christmas. It is a greater offense to use our Christian faith as a marketing tool than to allow smoking in public places.” Cork resident Andrew Doyle piled on from the secularist viewpoint, calling the decorations “a folly that strikes at the heart of our civilization far beyond religious sensibilities.”  More revolting than tobacco and a coronary event for the nation – these folks do not mince words!

And the tales go on and on. Irish Rail is refusing to allow gays free train travel for their partners, even though such benefits are available to heterosexual couples. The gay couples say legislation adopted by Parliament requires the benefit, but some religious groups oppose it.

The controversial traditionalist Catholic group Opus Dei has been granted its first parish in Ireland, in a suburb of Dublin. Critics, including a writer named Robert Hutchison, are already warning that the group could have a “catastrophic effect” because Opus Dei “labours silently and stealthily to align government policies with those of the Vatican.”

Finally, trial court judge Mary Fahy declined to convict the owners of nine Galway restaurants that had offered wine with dinner last Good Friday, calling the mandatory prohibition policy on that day “ludicrous and ridiculous” – but Fahy conceded that she was almost certainly opening her ruling to appeal by state prosecutors.

When I take a vacation outside the United States, I always end up with a dozen pages torn out of local papers that form the basis of columns like this (see similar ones on Australia, New Zealand and Scotland over the past few years).

If anyone has an idea for a vacation spot where I won’t have to do tear-sheets, would you please let me know?

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.